Adventures in mastering.
So, I finally started to make recordings that you could actually call records, and of course was really interested in this mysterious "mastering" thing. That is the process of taking your final mixes and tweaking them to they miraculously sound like a record and supposedly translate well to any playback system. Today it probably sounds strange but bear in mind that in the time I am talking about there wasn't really home-brew mastering - not even throwing it into Ozone or any of that business. At best, you'd compress it on the master bus, have an EQ there and you were done - and that was what came out for people's demos at least. A limiter? No way. My first experiences were watching a guy with a magical device called a TC Finalizer and a lot of cow print fabric in his studio off a cassette manufacturing business...do something in between really not liking the music...and I do suppose it sounded more record-like at the end. Louder, and brighter mainly with the finished mixes pretty close in level track to track. It was pretty meh.
I later produced some b-sides for a single release for a signed band, got the train to London, dropped off the material at the fancy "real" mastering house and was told to come back at noon so I could sit in on the mastering session. I wandered around aimlessly for a couple of hours, arriving back at 11:55 and when I did the guy said "Oh, sorry - I already did it". So much for my learning experience and a day and 20 pounds down the drain. I did get a cup of bad coffee, and was surprised to see despite his array of super sexy Maselec gear...he monitored mainly on NS10's. Before you call bullshit on that - I assure he is doing killer work to this day, including probably half the reggae produced in the UK! I asked what he did, eager to learn the dark mastering magic that would transform my mixes to a finished record and he quickly looked at his notes saying "not a lot - cut at 400 to open the track out, added some top...then a little bit of compression from these two" pointing to a Maselec and Neumann compressor. Off you go son, got another record to cut.
More records followed, and I kept showing up like a bad smell at more mastering sessions to observe and learn. Different engineers, different EQ's, different compressors...and the key thing I realised was how little happened on a good day; it really was all in your mix. I so wanted something magical to happen, some kind of transformation..but nah. If they had to do a lot, you probably screwed up, which course I sometimes had. The mastering environment shows up those LF bumps you didn't quite hear, the sibilance you should have tamed and your general inadequacy. They did usually make it better as well as louder, reined in the low end, opened things up but the heavy lifting was the mix. In fact much to my disappointment, they WANTED to do as little as possible! It was still very important to watch, stay out of the way and learn. I also learned a big thing regarding level - most of them didn't want to slam your master, and they were careful with regards to how they got the master loud. Small stages, little bits of compression, - and how EQ affects apparent loudness. The other key thing I saw is they often clipped the A/D converters instead of limiting, or did that with only the tiniest amount of software limiter following. Whenever I see people on forums talking about comparing their master with one of the big boys and arguing about what limiter to use I think of this; a lot of ME's push into a set of super high quality A/D's which does the big level gain without all those software limiter style artefacts as they are literally clipping to get the level despite all the evils we are told about clipping and the gear is such that they can do it without it sounding bad. I also rarely saw a multi band compressor in use...maybe twice on a particularly bass in your face record. Fast forward to the present day and none of this is a secret anymore, and we have tools that emulate entire mastering consoles in a plugin, but should we master our own music? My opinion is not unless you absolutely have to! Why? Stay tuned for the next episode.